By the sixteenth century, the religion of Islam had spread far beyond its point of origin in Southwest Asia. Islamic communities, large empires, and a number of Islamic kingdoms thrived in West and East Africa, southeastern Europe, India, and Southeast Asia. But although no single powerful caliphate held all these areas together, the religion of Islam allowed for a degree of cohesiveness and unity, despite theological disagreements. As a result, trade in all types of goods unified the wider Islamic world, flowing along numerous trade routes and through markets overseen by Muslim market inspectors. Local states encouraged trade through their territories because it brought them economic benefits and access to new ideas and technologies. This trade often occurred with the cooperation of the many non-Muslim communities that lived in the Islamic world, such as Jewish people and Christians.
In addition to goods and people, trade routes also carried ideas, knowledge, and technologies that also served as a cohesive force. Some led to improvements in mapmaking and navigation. Others had military applications, such as new firearms and artillery. These weapons provided advantages to some of the large Islamic empires of the era, like the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals.
The Ottoman Empire was one of the most diverse political entities of its time. Sultans such as Suleiman I encouraged people of all ethnicities to settle there, and under the millet system, each religious community had its own leader, regulated its own affairs, and educated its own children. This diversity is reflected in the languages spoken in the empire. Turkish was for interacting with the government, Arabic for scholarship and in religious settings, and Persian for literature.
The empire reached its greatest heights under Suleiman I, known in the West as “the Magnificent” and among Ottomans as “the lawgiver” for his creation of a legal code that applied throughout the realm. Under Suleiman and his successors, science flourished, and important advances were made in fields such as astronomy and medicine. The Ottoman Empire began to decline in power following the defeat of its forces by European navies at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. In the seventeenth century, the Ottomans found their power being eclipsed by that of Russia in the Black Sea region.
The establishment of the Safavid state under Shah Ismail I in 1501 was followed by rapid territorial expansion, but conflict between factions of the Qizilbash military corps allowed the Ottoman and Uzbek empires to take advantage and capture territory. Shahs Tahmasp and Abbas I created a corps of enslaved people from the Caucasus to serve as their new elite military force and eventually replace the Qizilbash.
The Safavid shahs were committed to Shi‘ite Islam and forcibly converted the Sunni Muslims in their territories. They were generally more tolerant of non-Muslims, particularly those who did not live in the Caucasus or along the border with the Ottoman Empire. But the Safavids’ militance and their intolerance of Sunnis heightened tensions between Sunnis and Shia throughout the Muslim world, a rift still apparent today. The stability of the Safavids’ political system allowed for a flourishing of art, however, as exemplified in miniature painting, ceramics, and royal architecture. After Abbas, the growing power of Russia and other neighboring kingdoms led to a weakened Safavid state, which came to an end when Nader Shah of the Afsharid dynasty crowned himself shah in 1736.