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Summary

Long neglected in world history, the Ottoman Empire was a hub of intellectual fervor, geopolitical power, and enlightened pluralistic rule. At the height of their authority in the 16th century, the Ottomans controlled more territory and ruled over more people than any world power, forcing Europeans out of the Mediterranean and to the New World.

Yet, despite its towering influence and centrality to the rise of our modern world, the Ottoman Empire's history has for centuries been distorted, misrepresented, and even suppressed in the West. Now Alan Mikhail presents a vitally needed recasting of Ottoman history, retelling the story of the Ottoman conquest of the world through the dramatic biography of Sultan Selim I (1470-1520).

Mikhail's game-changing account uses Selim's life to upend prevailing shibboleths about Islamic history and jingoistic "rise of the West" theories that have held sway for decades. Whether recasting Christopher Columbus's voyages to the "Americas" as a bumbling attempt to slay Muslims or showing how the Ottomans allowed slaves to become the elite of society while Christian states at the very same time waged the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, God's Shadow radically reshapes our understanding of the importance of Selim's Ottoman Empire in the history of the modern world.

©2020 Alan Mikhail (P)2020 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books

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  • Jens
  • 15-09-20

Entertaining narrative, but poor scholarship

Mikhail provides a gripping and informative narrative of Selim's ascent to power that almost has you cheering for Selim; you get a good feeling for the bizarre and treacherous world of Ottoman dynastic politics. He also does a good job of highlighting some Western blindspots regarding the Ottomans: the critical role they played in global history and their comparative tolerance for minority religions. Unfortunately, there is a biased undercurrent in Mikhail's writing. You start to see the bias as he depicts Christian Europeans as nervous nellies, paranoid about the Ottomans (who were, of course, such tolerant and enlightened rulers). Apparently, he thinks the fact that Muslim forces sailed up the Tiber to Rome, raided all the way into Switzerland from the West and all the way to Vienna from the east doesn't justify those feelings. Let's be clear: if it not for Charles Martel and Jan Sobieski, Christendom would likely have been wiped off the map. Europeans had plenty of cause to be paranoid. Mikhail dolefully notes that Muslims had been in Spain for 8 centuries when they were driven out of Granada. He makes no such note about the Christians being driven out of Constantinople after 13 centuries! The sense you get from this book is that when the Ottomans conquer a place, it's just something that happens; when they launch a gratuitous pogrom, murdering 40,000 Alevis and Shiites... no problem! But when the Christians conquer (or actually recover territory that Muslims had previously seized), it's some kind of dastardly and nefarious act. Along those lines, it's notable that Mikhail avoids even mentioning the term "Ghazi;" -- a term fundamental to Ottoman identity and which every one of the Ottoman Sultans invoked (and many even had in their titles). It means "warrior/raider for the faith." And, no, it was not used in a metaphorical or figurative sense. If you read between Mikhail's lines, you can figure out the pivotal role the ghazi ideal played: Selim earned his stripes by leading a campaign to kill Christian Georgians and rape all their women (and boys). It's a disservice to history and to the Ottomans to whitewash them of their ghazi spirit. Selim would probably have impaled Mikhail for this indignity. It is perhaps Mikhail's bias that leads him to get so many things wrong--or maybe it's just poor scholarship. Here's a quick list of the more flagrant errors and oversights: 1) "The Muslims gave Christians the lateen sail, launching the age of exploration." WRONG. There are Christian mosaics dating 2 centuries before Islam that show lateen sails. Note the name: it was developed and used by LATINS (i.e. Romans and Byzantines), Arab Muslims learned about it from Coptic Christians in Egypt (it's still used in feluccas). 2) "Spanish conquistadors thought American natives were Muslims." WRONG. Take the Aztecs for example. Cortes and his men were keenly aware of both Islam and the Aztec religion. NOWHERE does either Cortes or Bernal Díaz (the two main primary sources) ever equate the two. They both provided horrific accounts of Aztec ritual sacrifice, which they knew Muslims didn't practice. In any case, Mikhail disproves his own contention. Later in the book, he documents that Christian leaders didn't want to send African Muslim slaves to the new world, lest they plant the seeds of Islam there. Oops! Why would that be a concern if Muslims were already there? 3) "Jihad mostly means an internal struggle to be a better Muslim" WRONG (or at least anachronistic). While that is one possible interpretation of Jihad, it is not what most medieval Islamic jurists believed. I have the entire corpus of Sahih Bukhari on the desk in front of me. It does not contain a single hadith (quote attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, SAW) that uses the term Jihad that way. In one hadith, a blind man asks Muhammad: "Do I have to perform Jihad?" Muhammad says "no." There are similar hadiths for a lame person and a woman. If Jihad is an internal struggle, why would these people be exempt? 4) "Christians waged a war against all of Islam, whereas Muslims only fought against individual kingdoms." WRONG. Starting during the Crusades, both Christian and Muslims pursued all kinds of opportunistic alliances across sectarian lines. For example, the Spanish sent Clavijo to Tamerlane to forge an alliance against the Ottomans. The English courted the Safavids, while the French (starting with Francis I) made pacts with the Ottomans to weaken their Austrian rivals. The Islamic concepts of "Dar al-Islam and "Dar al-Harb" are precisely about waging war against all of Christianity. But along with "Ghazi," these are terms Mikhail avoids mentioning. 5) "Devshirme was actually a good thing for Christian boys." MOSTLY WRONG. Occasionally, Christians in the Balkans sought to send their young sons to join the Janissary corps because it offered the possibility of advancement. But that was the exception. Contrary to what Mikhail intimates, people did not like having their sons kidnapped and forced to convert to a different religion. Oh, and forced circumcision when you're 14 years old: not fun and sometimes deadly. 6) "Islamic slavery was a benign institution compared to European slavery." MOSTLY WRONG. For starters, the Islamic trans-Saharan slave trade had double the mortality rate of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is true that Islamic slaves could advance to positions of power and influence. But I don't know of a single instance of European slaves being castrated or genitally mutilated -- a common practice for the Ottomans, particularly with African slaves. This was the worst imaginable torture and was often fatal. 7) "Under the 'millet system' (Mikhail refers to the concept, but not the term) different ethnic groups got along famously. Hurrah for multiculturalism!!" Also WRONG. Here's an account from a 17th Century Western visitor to the Ottoman Empire: "I noted them so desperate malicious towards one another, as each loves the Turke better than they doe either of the other, and serve him for informers, and instruments against one another: the hatred …is at this day so implacable, as hee who in any Christian warre upon the Turke." -- Henry Blount The Ottomans ruled by keeping ethnic groups divided and pitting them against each other. For example, they used Kurds and Circassians against Armenians and Vlachs and Serbs against Croats. The result was an abiding enmity among these groups; the legacy of Ottoman multiculturalism was FIVE genocides: the Greek, Assyrian, Armenian, Serbian, and Bosnian genocides. Putting aside the numerous errors and wild and undocumented suppositions, I believe there are about a dozen terms that you need to explain to layman readers just to intelligently discuss the Ottomans: ghazi, millet, devshirme, reaya, askeri, ulama, timar, istimalet, etc. Mikhail only mentions one or two of these by name, and only covers one or two more in concept, and perfunctorily at that. Instead of this book, I'd recommend "The lords of the Golden Horn: From Suleiman the Magnificent to Kamal Ataturk" It is a much better, and less tendentious, work.

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  • Liam Bussell
  • 20-09-20

A little bit of fun, some factual inaccuracies

It’s a good view of a single sultan and an interesting time, but to assume that “the fall of Egypt” and a bunch of other things happened during the reign of a single sultan who actually ruled for a much shorter time than Mehmed or Sulieman. Some military conquests does not make a “great man of history” which is an outdated form of historical analysis anyway. The story of his rise to the throne was perhaps the the most interesting part.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 03-09-20

Incredibly in depth account

I’ll keep this short and sweet. Some of this is some perspective changing accounts of the histories of the Mediterranean and the Americas. However, specially towards the end of the book, he was making some strong leaps to connect certain ideas. The book is worth the read or listen and gives an excellent account of Selim’s life. The book was really good and entertaining. The audiobook reader was infuriating to listen to at points because of his random inflection on certain words. If you’re debating on buying this book, I strongly encourage you to do so. The complaints are minor and keep in mind that the author is very much interested in the Ottomans and will seem biased at points. This does not necessarily discredit him but just keep this idea in mind because it’s important to understand the author as well as the book for a complete understanding.

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  • sherin
  • 07-09-20

Great History

Without understanding the history we will easily get lost in the future . this book from a credible source states the facts of important.part at the dawn of America’s history. It is informative, interesting... I highly recommend

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  • Allan
  • 30-11-20

An Underrated Sultan

When one thinks of the Ottoman Empire, one might think of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II, Muslim expansionism into Eastern Europe, or, in a more ignorant fashion, hordes of barbarians overtaking cities and villages with no discipline. However, Selim I probably does not come to mind, but after listening to this book, he no doubt will. The author shows how Selim potentially saved the empire from crumbling at the hands of the Safavids in 1514, tripped the size of the empire with his expansionist wars, and outmaneuvered his father and kin for the throne. No doubt, Mikhail satisfies the thirst of those looking for the pre-requisites of the Ottoman rise to global power in the 16th century under Suleiman and outlines the often overlooked but vitally important facts about the empire. Filled with interesting facts, battles, and ideological conflicts that were all vying for power in the early 1500's, Mikhail shows how the Ottomans would win the day and that orthodox Sunnism would win and go on to become the largest empire along the Mediterranean since the Roman Empire in large part thanks to Selim.

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  • Robert Reitter
  • 30-11-20

Great History

A thrilling and illuminating history of a culture little known in the West. Beautifully written.

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  • Benjamin
  • 06-10-20

Great book

Wonderful book but I did not like the reader. it was very interesting to get a different perspective on history

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  • Bramante
  • 28-09-20

Superb and needed revisionist history.

I have been reading about the Byzantines (Runciman, ey al.) - a sadly ignored history lasting 1100 years and 50+ emperors. Once you study Byzantium you cannot avoid another ignored history, the Ottomans. Everyone thinks: Suleiman the Magnificent or maybe Mehmed The Conqueror of Byzantium, This book is a much needed history of Mehmet's grandson and Suleiman's father. In only 8 years Selim reordered Europe and established the Ottomans as great and wise rulers of a stunning and tolerant pan-muslim empire. Along the way Alan Mikhail, Yale History Dept chair, explains the origins of European racism, plus the anti-muslim and anti-semitic poison that accompanied it. This is new stuff. Eye-opening.

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  • Brian Dowd
  • 28-09-20

A fascinating book

I learned a lot from this book easy-to-follow and a good story. This makes me look at European and US history in a new light.

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  • mehmet emin adin
  • 27-09-20

evolution of the modern world

Firstly, narrator did an excellent job. Although this is not a novel, listening to it, you will absolutely feel like in an exciting novel packed with interesting string of events and facts. Much like the the theory of everything, this is the book of everything, as far as modern history concerns. From early middle eastern settlements, to Ottoman Empire, discovery of America, reformations of Christianity and Islam, Martin Luther birth of Protestantism, history of slavery, European Crusades, church’s regulations,the foundation of the USA, 9/11, Barack Obama, Erdogan and finally Donald Trump. For me, whatever Sapiens by Harari was for history of humanity, God’s Shadow is for the history of modern world. There is clearly tremendous amount of work and dedication behind this rather scholarly story. Kudos for the author.