Historian discusses Turkey’s ties with subcontinent’s Muslims

Updated 21 Dec 2017


PROF Dr Azmi Ozcan speaks at the PIIA on Wednesday.—White Star
PROF Dr Azmi Ozcan speaks at the PIIA on Wednesday.—White Star

KARACHI: The glorious history of the Ottoman Empire and its eventual unravelling is etched in the minds of the Muslim community around the world. But it was the Muslims of the subcontinent who felt its loss more potently, considering it a betrayal of sorts when the decision to end the Caliphate was taken by Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Pakistan, Prof Dr Azmi Ozcan was present at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs on Wednesday and shared his decades of research regarding the relationship between Ottoman Turkey and the subcontinent’s Muslims.

Dr Masuma Hasan elaborated how the Khilafat movement was “one of the biggest movements of that time and was somehow entwined with the larger political struggle of the people of the subcontinent.”

She asked Dr Ozcan, who is currently a professor of history at Sakarya University and has a PhD in British-Ottoman Relations from the University of London, to elaborate on what his research had yielded.

Explains why Ottomans couldn’t help Tipu Sultan

Dr Ozcan recalled all the places he had travelled in the subcontinent which aided his research as well as served another purpose. “I travelled to Karachi, Lahore, Delhi and Agra and I rediscovered myself and my history. And I discovered when my ancestors first came to the subcontinent.”

He then proceeded to give a history lesson from the time of Mohammed bin Qasim to the advent of Mahmud Ghaznavi’s 17 invasions, which laid the foundation of the Islamisation of the country. “A hundred years later another Islamic dynasty came, the Ghurids and one of their commanders, Qutb al-Din Aibak, established the Delhi Sultanate. When you go back in time, you see a shared history.”

Dr Ozcan shared how he had, during his research, come across letters dated as far back as the 15th century “which have been preserved in the libraries and archives in Turkey. Some of them were sent from the subcontinent to congratulate the Ottomans on the conquest of Constantinople”.

Another interesting exchange between the two countries was through a travelogue. The talk took an interesting turn when Dr Ozcan spoke about Mir’ât ül Memâlik, a memoir written in 1557 by Seydi Ali Reis of the Ottoman Imperial Navy. His assignment was to return 15 galleys from Basra to Egypt but instead with a shipwrecked crew and after having lost most of his ships in the battle against the Portuguese, the navy general had to take refuge on the west coast of India.

He stayed in the subcontinent and decided to return to his emperor by road. His interactions with the locals as well as royalty of the subcontinent on his way back are chronicled in this travelogue, translated into English as The Mirror of Countries. Seydi’s narrative also chronicles his interactions with Emperor Humayun and the Muslims of the subcontinent.

“As the Muslims of the subcontinent were losing their supremacy, they developed a kind of sentimental attachment to the existence of Muslim power in Anatolia,” said Dr Ozcan, which is why they felt the loss of the Ottoman Empire deeply. And there are two particular examples of this in history to prove this.

“One such instance is of when Tipu Sultan, in his struggle against the British, asked the Ottomans for help. However, at the time the Ottomans needed military assistance from the British as they were fighting off the Russians. The British told the Sultan that “if you really need our help against the Russians, you must help in our fight in the subcontinent to which they agreed and did not lend their support to Tipu Sultan.”

Dr Ozcan became emotional when introspecting about the current state of the Muslim world, where most of the religious and cultural centres held sacred are currently places of conflict and strife. The recent loss of Al Quds, he said, was one such example. If the Muslim world envisioned a different world for themselves, he stated, they must come together and change and repair the current relationships between one another.

Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2017