BOOK REVIEW: God’s Shadow – The Ottoman Sultan who shaped the modern world


By Shamsudden Sani

Author: Alan Mikhail
Number of Pages :  479
Publisher Faber and Faber
Date of Publication 2020

The meat of the book is brilliantly delivered through a fascinating biography of its subject in a gripping manner. Selim I, the grandson of Mehmet II, the Conqueror, eclipsed all of his predecessors by nearly tripling the empire’s territory with conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucasus. The empire was a giant, far more powerful than any other state on Earth, bestriding the three continents of the Old World, and it was aiming for more when he passed away in 1520. The first Ottoman to hold the positions of both sultan and caliph was Selim, who oversaw the Ottoman Empire’s first majority-Muslim state. In addition, he was among the first non-firstborn sons to succeed as sultan, the first to have only one son, and the first to overthrow a sultan who was already in power. Not entirely in a rosy fashion, the book at a point describes him, ‘’Monomaniacally obsessed with accruing power, Selim systematically and ruthlessly eliminated his domestic and foreign rivals, slaughtering two of his half-brothers in order to gain the throne.’’

Selim’s life has been extensively documented due to his position in Ottoman history and international politics, and the author acknowledged that this is a revisionist narrative of his life. But a very potent one. The time period of Selim’s life and rule may have been the most important in world history. He turned out to be the most powerful of Osman’s 36 sultans, even more so than his son, Suleyman the Magnificent, who is thought to be the most well-known sultan of the Ottoman Empire. His legacy shaped the empire up until its fall in the twentieth century.

The author takes you on a journey from the time before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It tells a captivating story about how the ideological wind powering the white sails of Columbus’s ships was the 15th century world’s most urgent political struggle—the one between Catholic Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. He contends that the Ottoman Empire was in fact the driving force behind European colonization of the New World. Because of Ottoman control over trade routes to the East and their military prowess on land and sea, Spain and Portugal were pushed from the Mediterranean, forcing their merchants and sailors to become global explorers as they risked treacherous trips across oceans and continents in order to avoid the Ottoman Empire.

At the risk of jeering into a spoiler territory, God’s Shadow provides an arguably original, perhaps revolutionary, explanation of the role of Islam and the Ottoman Empire in shaping the Old and New Worlds by tracking the global influence of Ottoman authority. The majority of this account, the author claimed, has been disregarded or overlooked by professional historians and general readers alike. Nonetheless, Muslims played a crucial role in what is obviously a shared history. As the author posited, “Whether politicians, pundits, and traditional historians like it or not, the world we inhabit is very much an Ottoman one. This is a story only Selim can tell.”

The book has opened my eyes and destroyed some of my previously and fiercely held beliefs about our current world thanks to its great writing style. And, given its extensive and deep bibliography, it is only just getting started.

Alan Mikhail, professor of history and chair of the Department of History at Yale University, is widely recognized for his work in Middle Eastern and global history. He is the author of three previous books about Ottoman empire.

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