Efe Khayyat and Ariel Salzmann — On the Perils of Thinking Globally while Writing Ottoman History: God’s Shadow and Academia’s Self-Appointed Sultans

Alan Mikhail, God's Shadow (Norton, 2020)
Alan Mikhail, God's Shadow (Norton, 2020)

a response to reviews of Alan Mikhail, God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World (Norton, 2020)

by Efe Khayyat and Ariel Salzmann


One of the more curious academic controversies to emerge during the pandemic revolves around the recent publication and positive reception of Alan Mikhail’s God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World. Although it is Ottoman Sultan Süleyman I (r. 1520-66) who has received the lion’s share of publicity beyond the Middle East—thanks, most recently, to a popular Turkish soap opera with fans across the world, from Ukraine to Mexico—it is actually his father, Selim I (r. 1512-20), who died 500 years ago that marks the true inflection point for world history. Selim’s lifetime spanned a period that witnessed the re-peopling of the newly conquered City of Constantinople, the welcoming of Jewish refugees from Spain in the Ottoman Balkans and the Aegean, and the first Iberian voyages toward the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. His relatively short reign overlapped with that of Moctezuma II, the ninth tlatoani of the Aztec Empire; Babur (Zahīr ud-Dīn Muhammad) who sent his armies from Afghanistan and founded the Mughal dynasty in India; the Ming dynasts in China; and the drafting of the 95 Theses by an otherwise obscure German Priest by the name of Martin Luther. Moreover, it was this sultan’s conquests that greatly expanded Ottoman hegemony across the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, as well as into the Red Sea, leaving the empire in a commanding position that Selim’s neighbors to the east and west could ignore only at their peril.

Given the number of endowed chairs in Ottoman and Turkish Studies at major research universities in the United States and the proliferation of scholars in Ottoman Studies at post-secondary North American institutions large and small, we Ottomanists should be better at inviting a wider audience to our field. And yet, almost singularly among historical fields, we have been unable to translate our research for nonspecialists and popular audiences. There are, of course, some noteworthy recent exceptions: popular works in German and English by the indefatigable Suraiya Faroqhi, Caroline Finkel’s synthetic overview, chapters on the Ottoman Empire in Elizabeth F. Thompson’s Justice Interrupted, Eugene Rogan’s timely book on the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and Leslie Peirce’s work on Roxelana.[1]

Given the paucity of efforts to bridge the divide between the academia and popular readership, one might assume that Ottoman historians would welcome a work in Ottoman history which has garnered attention from The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. And yet quite the opposite has occurred: for some reason this book has provoked an intensely hostile reaction by some of the most prominent scholars in the field. Under the guise of a critical and purely academic assessment, Mikhail’s book has recently been subjected to an unfortunate attack by Cornell Fleischer, Cemal Kafadar, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, published in English in an Italian online journal and then quickly translated into Turkish and other languages. It should be noted that only two of these scholars are Ottoman historians, while the third is an internationally known scholar specializing in the history of South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The very title of their screed, “How to Write Fake Global History,” portents ominously, borrowing from both the terminology and tone of the current occupant of the White House’s assaults on the press. Not only does their tract misrepresent and mischaracterize the aims and methods of God’s Shadow, but its vitriol launches a further broadside attack on other examples of global and popular history and has fueled a social media frenzy attacking the author and his book in Turkey as well as United States.

We will leave aside the rather bizarre aspects of Fleischer, Kafadar, and Subrahmanyam’s text—the repeated ad hominem attacks; the immature disparaging of Mikhail; the abject ignorance of genre; the willful distortion of the methods and feigned naiveté about the nature of contemporary trade publishing; the suggestion of a conspiracy by Mikhail and his “agents and admirers;” and even the badgering of the editors of The Washington Post who refused to grant these critics a podium. Skipping these elements, we would like to declare in advance what their text truly is: an attempt by senior male scholars in a particular branch of American academy to flex institutional, professional, and cultural muscle within and abroad, particularly in Turkey, to defame and denigrate honest efforts to write Ottoman history and in doing so reinforce their own seemingly hegemonic and certainly outdated idea of what constitutes true history writing.

A few examples should suffice to illustrate the disingenuousness Fleischer, Kafadar, and Subrahmanyam employ to make their case. Let’s take the Ottoman role in disseminating coffee and coffee drinking (two pages in Mikhail’s 450-page book). Citing page 318 of the book, they claim that Mikhail says that “it was Selim’s military that first discovered” coffee. In fact, he does not say that, but rather explains that it was “the intercontinental unity Selim achieved” that allowed coffee to become a global phenomenon, one the Ottomans would monopolize for centuries. In another instance, they point to Mikhail’s supposed overreliance on a book by Fatih Akçe as evidence of insufficient scrutiny of and attention to Ottoman Turkish and other sources, a point they pirate from a sober and scholarly review by Caroline Finkel. Thirty-one citations is hardly a lot in a book with over 1,300 total citations. To take the example of the section about the caliphate (one page) that seems particularly irksome to them, Mikhail cites Akçe once there, not as the sole source but alongside seven other sources. The main primary source is the eyewitness account of the Egyptian chronicler Ibn Iyās, and Mikhail footnotes the historiographical debate about the caliphate, including a citation to Finkel herself. Mikhail does not rely on Akçe for any substantive part of his argument.

As for their conceptual objections, they rest their case on two principle lines. The first is that this book is nothing more than navel-gazing “great man” history, an interesting tactic given that at least two of these historians have published usefully on major (and male) historical figures. As if to reduce the book to its title, the three authors continually term Selim “Mikhail’s hero.” This is laughable. No honest reading of the book could conclude that Mikhail seeks the celebration (or destruction) of Selim. God’s Shadow is not a monument to Selim. If anything, in fact, Selim comes off as violent and conniving. And though Fleischer, Kafadar, and Subrahmanyam say Mikhail neglects Selim’s massacre of thousands of his own Alevi (Shiite) subjects, Mikhail does reference this event on pages 258-59 and then on page 402 and then in the book’s chronology.

The rather obvious point Fleischer, Kafadar, and Subrahmanyam miss or ignore is that Mikhail uses the figure of this single and singular historical subject to show how an appropriately narrow scholarly focus can “shed light in a radiating fashion” on a world historical moment.[2] This method of picking the right “tangible hook” for traversing our vast and intricate cultural past has long been advocated by humanists since its pioneer, Erich Auerbach, taught us how to practice cultural criticism and interpret historical “figures.”

The second major complaint the trio lodge against Mikhail may seem at odds with the first—that he grossly overstates the place of the Ottomans on the world stage. It is only the most limited understanding of the contingent nature of history that could prevent one from grasping how in the absence of concrete evidence of the concrete presence of the Ottomans in Mexico, or say a letter from an Ottoman to an Aztec, there could be any, in their words, “real connection of the conquest of Mexico to the Ottomans.” Here they slyly splice together sentences some 130 pages apart in God’s Shadow combined with a phrase from The Washington Post to suggest that Mikhail claims that Selim and Cortés were somehow in touch. There is no such claim in the book.

Mikhail’s approach offers something far more sophisticated—an analysis of how the faculty of imagination shaped historical actions, decisions, ideas, and emotions. He takes us from the Middle East to Mexico to demonstrate the extent to which the terrible and fabulous Turk marked the European-Christian mind in the sixteenth century. In God’s Shadow, one of the great fears of Spanish merchants and colonial authorities on Mexico’s Pacific shore in the sixteenth century turns out to have been imaginary “Turks or Moors,” possibly plotting with Native Americans to attack Christians. We know that this is absurd—that no vassal of the “Grand Turk” or his spies made it to Mexico, let alone plotted with Native Americans. Yet Mikhail demonstrates that upon sighting a fearsome fleet of vessels, the first thing the Spaniards could think of remained their Old-World enemy. We will never know with exact certitude in what ways this fear and the association of Native Americans with the Grand Turk affected the actions and decisions of the colonizers. Yet we know that the Christian mind and imagination of the era was deeply marked by the Ottomans (and other Muslims)—that the state of mind of Spanish merchants and colonial authorities reflected a significant influence of the imaginary Turk. We know that Columbus considered his own adventures and even the crossing of the Atlantic to be merely a part of the Reconquista and the Crusades against Muslims, which had already expelled Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492.The attempt by Fleischer, Kafadar, and Subrahmanyam to make it seem as though Mikhail is unaware of “real” history serves to excise a vast amount of evidence of vital early modern global connections: the papal bull issued in the immediate aftermath of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople that licensed Iberian princes to conquer and enslave peoples to the west, including in Africa, or the keen Ottoman interest in reports and documents concerning the lands across the Atlantic as evidenced by the map of South America reproduced by the Ottoman admiral Piri Reis. Mikhail’s work here is akin to Carina L. Johnson’s research situating both the Ottomans and Aztecs in the mental map of the Habsburg world, a major contribution to understanding the lingering image of the Terrible Turk in western literature and cultural memory.[3]

Focusing on Sultan Selim’s Ottoman Empire against the background of the world historical moment of the conquests, conflicts, and voyages of the sixteenth century, God’s Shadow makes a case for the centrality of the at once “real” and imagined, at once terrible and fabulous Turk in the making of our global cultural universe. On the one hand, this book of world history asks American readers to view Ottoman history as “a branch of world history à part entière.”[4] Yet it also allows anyone interested in Ottoman studies to view the Ottoman past with an eye on its intended and unintended implications for the world beyond the Ottoman cultural universe.

Both interventions have significant consequences for world history and Ottoman history alike. The centrality of the figure of Selim to Mikhail’s world history seems almost conventional at first, yet it draws new boundaries for the globe by merely expanding them a little. Mikhail’s choice to zoom in on the “figure” of Sultan Selim while writing world history provides a synthetic view of a global historical moment without compromising historical and philological scrutiny. The new world that Mikhail’s gentle rhetorical move makes visible hardly resembles the image of anything we have seen before. That Mikhail’s “Ottoman” figure is not easily recognizable from an “Ottoman” or modern “Turkish” perspective is refreshing. Mikhail’s figure of Selim is not some self-sufficient, self-same, homogenous entity but one that was molded by multiple Western and non-Western rivals warring, trading, competing, and sharing, and in the process literally sculpting one another. This type of intellectual intervention is exactly what one expects from not only good history, but also the burgeoning disciplines of world literature and art, or comparative religions and all the other—impossibly—global perspectives on the past that the contemporary critical humanities pursue today. That Selim’s indelible mark on the world and world consciousness remained unaccounted for—as historical reality and as part of a historically real “fiction”—with all its implications for our cultural and political past, until the publication of God’s Shadow only makes the case for how urgent Mikhail’s intervention has been all along, especially for American readers.

Mikhail does not only take the faculty of imagination seriously. He takes religion and its history seriously as well. Both gestures mean that the sort of history Mikhail writes is a service to disciplines beyond disciplinary history, from cultural criticism to literary and art history. Moreover, his argument is based on the simple and undeniable fact that the religion and culture of Christianity had a significant role to play in the making of our modern world. What Mikhail does with this fact is to turn the tables to remind us that the history of Christianity did not take shape in a vacuum. Islam had a hand in the making of Christianity. This is a simple and obvious fact that should be clear to any reader and that no competent and ethical student of history can possibly overestimate.

It is both a perfectly reasonable objection and an objective fact that such a global scope can pose a challenge to the nuanced views of the past that we owe to scholarly specialization. Mikhail’s pioneering work in environmental history displays impeccable historical scrutiny and empirical depth. If the goal of God’s Shadow is to write Ottoman history against a global background, this obviously requires that he paint with broad strokes at times. Writing any sort of complete global history is obviously impossible, yet it is also imperative in our day and age to write world history. The goals of commensurability and comparison across all the fields of the humanities seeking world historical perspectives demand such impossible yet imperative tasks, not merely for the sake of writing and, in some cases, rewriting more inclusive histories, but also to account for the ways in which the reality of our radically intertwined contemporary world took shape despite very old and persistent claims to exceptionality and homogeneity, whether national, religious, ethnic, or otherwise.

One must ask why this particular text and its author has generated such controversy. It is well known that coffee arrived in Europe via Ottoman connections and that the pressure from the Ottoman Empire prevented Catholic kings and emperors from repressing the “heresy” of Protestantism. What then is the real, not fake, reason for the energy behind this seemingly orchestrated campaign in the United States and Turkey against this book? Those outside the field of Ottoman history read this as “pique” by a trio of holders of major chairs at pinnacle institutions at the remarkable success of a younger, highly productive scholar. Pamela Kyle Crossley adds that the controversy serves as an opportunity and excuse for the three to paper over their “genteel misogyny” by feigning to enlarge the scope of historical interpretation by leveling a charge of “fake global history.” For students and established scholars in the field of Ottoman Studies, the transparent animus motivating this attack on the author and his work replay a politics of policing and gatekeeping that is by now as predictable as it is debasing to the field. The attendant social media mobbing of Mikhail and God’s Shadow in the US and Turkey demonstrates how this power flexing operates. In surrendering their intellectual autonomy, acolytes and former students signal their fealty to their hocas, for they know they must fear this type of public pillorying by chairs in Ottoman and Turkish studies who exert inordinate influence on appointments, publication possibilities, and tenure and promotion in our field.

Although no field is free from such controversies, Ottoman historians in the United States should regard this episode with a degree of sadness and considerable embarrassment. To be clear—we see this tempest as an intellectual problem that underscores increasingly entrenched tendencies in our field that stymie development and renewal. Over the last decade the loss of highly productive and institution building senior scholars, the late Donald Quataert (1941-2011) in particular,[5] has left a critical vacuum in Ottoman Studies in the United States. Now to think big and comparatively and to raise large questions that affect the way we interpret entire periods of global history, or even parallel regional developments within what seem to be universal patterns, seem to detract from the increasing provincialism and the preciousness of mainstream Ottoman history in the United States, a historiography that seems to have moved only slightly beyond the cultural turn of the 1990s. In the last decades, dismissing more recent and sophisticated approaches in favor of a narrow range of outdated emphases and methods to interpret largely narrative sources of Ottoman history has contributed to the neo-Ottomanism of the contemporary moment, unwittingly or not.

It has taken a collective, transnational and multi-disciplinary effort to begin to recover and restore the global legacy of the peoples and cultures of the tri-continental Ottoman polity. Indeed, scholars across the humanities and social sciences whose work engages different aspects of Ottoman, Turkish, and, more broadly, Middle Eastern pasts, have all contributed to the methodological sophistication Mikhail’s overall work reflects as well as helping to prepare the intellectual terrain for its reception. However we may regard the merits of God’s Shadow, we must thank its author for his efforts in making the empire’s significance understandable to new audiences while defying those who seek to impose boundaries on the horizons of Ottoman scholarship to solidify their fading authority.


Efe Khayyat is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Rutgers and a Senior Researcher at St. Edmund’s College of Cambridge. He works mostly with Turkish (Ottoman and modern), Ladino (Judeo-Espagnol), Italian, French, German, and Arabic. He is the author of Istanbul 1940 and Global Modernity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Among his awards are various fellowships and visiting professorships at Gutenberg in Mainz, Science Po and Paris 8 in Paris, Cambridge University, and Jamia Millia Islamia of Delhi; a UNESCO award, the Marjorie Hope Nicolson Fellowship and an ICLS fellowship at Columbia, and the Sir Mick and Lady Barbara Davis Fellowship at the Woolf Institute. He was a member of the founding board of Harvard’s Institute for World Literature. Efe is currently working on an edited volume on the cultural history of artificial intelligence, and a new book on “Kariye” (Khôra).

Ariel Salzmann is Associate Professor of Islamic and World History at Queen’s University. Her intellectual interests span world regions, disciplines, past and present. In addition to her 2004 monograph on the political sociology of the later Ottoman Empire, Tocqueville in the Ottoman Empire: Rival Paths to the Modern State, Professor Salzmann has published articles on a wide range of subjects, from a sociological analysis of the integration/exclusion of religious minorities in Medieval Christendom and the Islamic World, to an account of the conversion of a Maltese priest to Islam in seventeenth-century Egypt and an analysis of the consumer craze over tulips in eighteenth-century Istanbul. Her scholarship has been supported by fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities/American Research Institute in Turkey Fellowship (1988, 1999), the American Council of Learned Societies (2000), and Queen’s University’s A.R.C/ S.A.R.C. (2005, 2011). Her current research project, which seeks to document cultural and diplomatic relations between the popes and Ottoman sultans, was the alternate for the American Academy in Rome’s Senior Prize in Renaissance and Early Modern Italian Studies in 2010. She was awarded a Senior Fellowship at the Research Centre for Anatolian Civilisations of Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey for Winter Term 2011. Before Queen’s, Professor Salzmann taught graduate and undergraduate students at the Pratt Institute, the University of Cincinnati and New York University. At Queen’s University she teaches seminars and lectures on Middle Eastern and world history.

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[1] Suraiya Faroqhi, A Cultural History of the Ottomans: The Imperial Elite and its Artefacts (London: I. B. Tauris, 2016); Suraiya Faroqhi, Kultur und Alltag im Osmanischen Reich: Vom Mittelalter bis zum Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts (Munich: C.H.Beck, 1995); Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923 (New York: Basic Books, 2006); Elizabeth F. Thompson, Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013); Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (New York: Basic Books, 2015); Leslie Peirce, Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire (New York: Basic Books, 2017).

[2] Erich Auerbach, “The Philology of World Literature,” in Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach, ed. James I. Porter, trans. Jane O. Newman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 262-63.

[3] Carina L. Johnson, Cultural Hierarchy in Sixteenth-Century Europe: The Ottomans and Mexicans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[4] Suraiya Faroqhi, Approaching Ottoman History: An Introduction to the Sources (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 2.

[5] Ariel Salzmann, “The Education of an Ottomanist: Donald Quataert and the Narrative Arc of Ottoman Historiography, 1985-2011,” in History From Below: A Tribute in Memory of Donald Quataert, eds. Selim Karahasanoğlu & Deniz Cenk Demir (Istanbul: Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayinlari 2016) pp.75-106.



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