I am studying history, and have been reading about the conquest of Byzantium, especially the venerable city of Constantinople – now Istanbul. For hundreds of years it was laid siege to by Muslims, a point of pride for conquest, and as such it seems that this city was unfairly conquered in the name of Islam. I was wondering if you could comment on this.
“Constantinople will surely be conquered. What a most splendid leader is the leader of the army that does so, and most splendid is that army.”
Truth from the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him.
The geographic location of Constantinople symbolizes its identity as a “center,” for it is at the meeting place of two continents, as well as of the two seas known as the Black and the White (or Mediterranean). This city was founded as a center of Empire, or rather as a seat of the Emperor. Among the traditional designations of the Roman Emperor, the title Pontifex or “bridge-builder” suggests that it is only by virtue of the Imperial function that the city may realize its potential to unite dualities merely symbolized by the two lands and seas. Among these dualities, sacerdotal authority and temporal power were united in the Roman Emperor. The conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity sealed the city’s destiny as a center of a Holy Roman Empire, and no doubt brought the promise of safety for its Christian subjects; yet this Christianization of the Imperial function carried with it a quandary. Since Jesus – peace be upon him – refused to embody, and thereby transmit, a royal function, a Christian emperor at the summit of society could not claim to represent the historical reality of Jesus alone. In other words, the emperor received his royal function by virtue of being Caesar, and Jesus had refused to unite what belonged to Caesar to what belongs to God.
The rise of Islam renewed on Earth a reality embodied most perfectly in the Seal of Prophets – peace and blessings be upon him – which is above the duality of spiritual authority and royal power. The conquest of Constantinople, however, was not immediate; but given the above prophecy, it should not be surprising that Muslims would strive to be included amongst those praised by the Most Praised One, peace and blessings be upon him. Only many centuries after the rise of Islam did the Ottomans appear, and with them the expansion of Muslim communities into lands long held by the Holy Roman Empire. The timing of this appearance may be understood in relation to the Tradition of the Holy Prophet – peace and blessings be upon him: “After me come caliphs, and after the caliphs come princes, and after princes there will be kings…” and the Ottomans clearly belong to the latter category. In a sense, then, the conquest of this imperial center was delayed until the rise of a Muslim ruler whose identity was suitably imperial. What is more, the duality of Christian and Muslim communities in the lands of the Romans demanded a Pontifex who could unite them, and a Christian ruler is ill suited for such a task, as the Crusades had proven.
It is generally recognized that the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople renewed the imperial city to a hitherto unknown glory, but it is less often understood to what degree the Ottoman ruler renewed the function of the Roman Caesar. By so doing, the Sultan united the allegiances of the Christian and Muslim communities; it is even likely that through this policy the survival of the Orthodox Church was ensured. At the same time, the Islamization of the Holy Roman Empire dispelled the quandary of the preceding centuries, since the imperial function was subsumed by a representative of the Seal of Prophets, in relation to whom the imperial function is but a proper shadow. In this connection, it may also be observed that unlike the Christian on the battlefield who does not follow the example of Jesus, peace be upon him, Muslim armies strove to follow the way of chivalry inherent to Islam and splendidly systematized by the Ottomans. It should perhaps also be recalled that the Ottomans did not rename the city “Istanbul,” a popular name of the city in Greek, although they affectionately knew it as “Islambul,” even while retaining the honored title of Constantinople. Historians have the responsibility to admit whether justice was better known before or after the conquest.
In the Islamic tradition, the conquest of Constantinople belongs to the signs of the Apocalypse; in Ottoman terms, it is related to the Prophecy of the Red Apple. Yet this Red Apple remained an apocalyptic hope of the Ottomans well after the conquest. Let it be remembered that according to Islamic tradition, the final victory against the Anti-Christ comes only with the descent of Jesus, peace be upon him, who returns to complete his providential role with his display of royal power. It is important, then, to recall the following message of Sultan ul-Awliya Shaykh Nazim al-Haqqani, may Allah sanctify his secret: “a new group is evolving until the coming of Jesus Christ. He has asked them to be called the ‘Legion of the Royal Kingdom of Jesus Christ on earth.’ He wants every real believer of Muslims and Christians to be servants of his Royal Kingdom, because it will be the Kingdom of Heavens on earth.”
So at the end of time, no less a cosmic duality than that of Heaven and earth is reconciled, and the allegiances of Christian and Muslim are again united. It is in this last respect that the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople may be seen to prefigure the return of Jesus, peace be upon him. In this light, one might well ask for whom such an event is “unfair.”