Undoubtedly, fratricide is one of the most controversial topics in Ottoman history. Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror's Law of Governance imparted the right of executing the male members of the dynasty to his son in order to prevent an interregnum. There were different practices regarding fratricide throughout the empire's history, with most of them seen as legitimate, but some executions, done to prevent a possible revolt, were criticized as illegitimate.
While the law introduced by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror sanctioned the practice of fratricide, Sultan Ahmed I ended it by not killing his brothers and introducing seniority succession to the Ottoman dynasty. Even though it seems rationally and conscientiously convenient, it created handicaps and become one of the reasons the empire entered its period of stagnation.
The tradition of the "kingdom being the common property of the dynasty," which was a feature of old Turkish politics, continued after the convertion to Islam. Some Turkish rulers chose to divide their country into regions and gave them over to the administration of princes in order to prevent civil war. However, this practice weakened the state and paved the way for its downfall. Thankfully, the Ottomans learned from these experiences. They sacrificed themselves for the state and their people and drank the bitter poison themselves. This bitter poison was the execution of the members of the dynasty for the good of the people, which is also known as fratricide.
In his letter to the son of Timur, Mehmed I Chelebi, the fourth sultan of the Ottomans, said: "My ancestors handled some inconveniences with their experience. Two sultans cannot live in the same country." The execution of members of the dynasty for political reasons does not pertain only to the Ottomans. It was also practiced by the Sasanians, Romans, Byzantines and even the Muslim Andalusian states. However, the main reason for this practice in these kingdoms was to take over the throne instead of preserving the unity of the state and the livelihood of the people. On the other hand, thousands of people who died during the long-lasting wars for the right of succession in Europe should be remembered.
It is narrated that the first capital punishment ordered within the dynasty was enforced by Osman Gazi, the founder of the Ottoman state, in 1298, for his uncle, Dündar Bey, as he was working on his own behalf and collaborated with the Byzantine feudal lords. During the first few centuries, members of the dynasty became a problem for the state under the rule of almost all sultans. The shahzades (Sultan's sons, princes), who laid claim to the throne, rebelled by being backed up by other Anatolian states or even the Byzantines. Following the Battle of Ankara (1402), in which the Ottomans were defeated, the state fell into an authority gap and the four shahzades of Bayezid I, that each had thousands of supporters, fought for the throne for years . At the end of this civil war, Mehmed I Chelebi, the youngest son of the sultan, defeated his brothers and became the sole holder of the Ottoman throne in 1413.
There was no set rule of succession for the Ottomans within the frame of the old Turkish political tradition. Each shahzade was sent to a "sanjak" (administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire) an equal distance from the capital after the age of 12. They underwent a period of training in a way, and the shahzade who came to the capital first following the death of his father became sultan. However, the famous article from Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror's Law of Governance states that "Any of my sons ascend the throne, it acceptable for him to kill his brothers for the common benefit of the people (nizam-i alem). The majority of the ulama (muslim scholars) have approved this; let action be taken accordingly." The law did not present a new rule of succession, but formulated that the shahzade who was the luckiest and the most powerful could succeed to the throne and wipe out his other brother who might claim the throne. Thus, the principle of the indivisibility of sovereignty in Islamic law was adopted by Ottoman politics, even if it cost the lives of the members of the dynasty. The executions of shahzades were performed according to the positive law, in other words, according to the Code of Sultan Mehmed II. As in all other monarchies, the ruler holds the judicial power in his hands under Islamic law.
There are three different reasons for the execution of shahzades in the Ottoman dynasty. First, shahzades were executed in the case they revolt to capture the throne. A coup attempt is seen as a crime all over the world. Upon the death of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in 1481, his younger son, Cem Sultan, sent his older brother Bayezid, the next Ottoman Sultan, a message suggesting that they share the country between them. Sultan Bayezid II rejected the offer. He defeated his brother, and Cem Sultan escaped to Europe and lived there for the rest of his life under sorrowful captivity. Some legal experts say execution can be ordered to punish a shahzade if he completes preparations for a revolt against the sultan.
Second, there might be no clear revolt attempt but certain signs of an uprising. Disobedience to the emperor through words or action or encouraging the public to rise up in revolt was a crime. When the eighth Ottoman sultan, Selim I, succeeded to the throne, he did not kill his brother Shahzade Korkut, but offered him a governorship position. Some viziers and soldiers from the former sultan's administration sent him a letter saying that they would like to see him as emperor and all conditions were convenient to his succession. Shahzade Korkut unluckily gave a positive response; the sultan saw the letter and ended his brother's life in 1513. Shahzade Mustafa, the son of Sultan Suleiman I 'the Magnificent', was executed for the same reason. Modern law does not specify punishment for criminal plots as long as any preparation is not carried out. However, it is up to the interpretation of theorists and practitioners to decide whether a plot can be considered preparation or action. To illustrate, if three people gather to kill someone, it is not seen as a criminal attempt; however, meeting to stage a coup is a criminal attempt.
Shahzade Mustafa and Shahzade Mahmud, the son of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed III, were not personally involved in any uprising, but were unwary. Such reckless behaviors were seen as a threat to the monarchies at that time and led to their executions to avoid possible disorder in the future. Shahzade Selim, another son of Sultan Suleiman I, and Shahzade İbrahim, the son of Sultan Ahmed I , found themselves on the throne with their patience and cautious attitudes even their successions were not presumed due to the existence of their elder brothers.
Third, in this example, there is neither a revolt nor preparation. Here there is a legitimacy problem. For many legal experts in the Ottoman Empire, the execution of shahzades was seen as legitimate, as they might rise up in the future. The public always saw the Ottoman dynasty as the eligible holder of the throne. Succession of another person or family outside the dynasty was never conceived. In military revolts, the emperor was threatened by enthroning a shahzade to the throne. Poor shahzades became a potential danger threatening the state and the nation's safety. Ottoman Sultan Murad IV sacrificed his innocent brother to suppress a riot as the army wanted to enthrone his brother. Austria's Ambassador Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, who stayed in the Ottoman Empire during the rule of Suleiman I, said: "It is an unfortunate thing to be a son of [Ottoman] emperors. It is because when one of them succeeds to the throne, the others then wait for their death. If the emperor's brother is alive, the army's requests never end. When the emperor does not accept their demand, then they cry 'God save your brother,' which shows their will to enthrone him."
Some modern scholars consider that the execution of shahzades who did not attempt to incite any riots was legal abuse and against the Sharia law system. The punishment of an innocent person with the worry of a possible crime in the future is against the law in accordance with the princible of "a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty according to the law." Those who see the execution of shahzades justifiable bases their approach on the "maslaha" (the interests of the public) principle in Islamic law. "Maslaha" means placing the public's interest before personal interest in regards to deciding an issue. The Quran specifies that fitna (rebellion, social disturbance) is worse than killing a person. For instance, Ottoman Sultan Osman II wanted to execute his brother when he was going to the Battle of Khotyn to avoid possible disobedience behind. However, Ottoman Shaikh al-Islam (Grand Mufti) Es'ad Efendi did not issue a fatwa, and the sultan took it from Qadi'asker Tashkopruzade. It was very common to see different fatwa interpretations in a case that is not clearly defined in legal references
Ottoman ulema explain clearly that fratricide was applied in accordance with verses of the Holy Qur'an. It is narrated in Qur'an (18:80-81) that the friend of Prophet Moses killed an innocent child. Moses had asked him: "Have you killed an innocent person who had killed none?" When Moses criticized him for killing an innocent child, he said: "And as for the lad, his parents were believers and we feared lest he should oppress them by rebellion and disbelief. It was our wish that our God should grant them another in his place, a son more righteous and better in affection." The Gospel of John (18:14) also says: "… it is better for you that one man dies for the people than that the whole nation perish." An example in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) books related to this subject is also worth mentioning: "The enemy attacks Muslims and some Muslim prisoners are used as a shield. Unless Muslims do not shoot, they would be defeated. They are allowed to shoot these innocent prisoners as if they were the enemy. This situation here refers to "maslaha," that is, common benefit . Otherwise, an execution of an innocent Muslim is forbidden. The Muslim army then can target its enemy. If the army does not take any action to save Muslim prisoners, the enemy invades the country and everyone including the prisoners would be killed.
There are concrete examples proving that precautions are not against Islamic law as they avoid possible harm. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, a person who was imprisoned for theft was released when he was exonerated. Caliphs Umar bin al-Khattab and Ali judged that craftsmen such as tailors and launderers would have to repay the damage due to the common benefit.
Modern law specifies that civil rights and liberties can be suspended by political, legal and administrative bodies in case of a criminal suspicion. Although they do not have criminal responsibility, people with severe mental problems can be isolated from the public in order to avoid them harming society. Other examples include the detention of a suspect, body search, phone tapping, , cordoning off roads, keeping out football fans that might kick up a fuss in matches and, even further, the detention of hooligans during matches and taking certain metal items away from those entering secure areas. These measures are of course not as severe as fratricide. From a legal perspective, however, they are all similar actions. Therefore, the execution of a "shahzade" (prince) who does not attempt an uprising against the sultan is a precaution rather than a punishment. It is true that the sultans thought that their execution decision had a legal base even at the cost of pushing the limits of political freedom of the sharia system in use.
Syrian Hanbali scholar Karmi (d. 1624), said that the execution of princes was a virtue of the Ottoman dynasty. Karmi approved of the killing of sons to avoid revolt among Muslims and placing the country in difficulties. He said that although a person with good sense does not recognize this decision, he found great benefit in it and believed that he preferred to give the fatwa of the execution of three people in order to protect another 30. Karmi's words illustrate the principle of choosing the more moderate path between two harmful ones. He narrates the collapse of the Moroccan sultanate due to the lack of fratricide in the sultanate.
Throughout the history of the Ottoman Empire, 60 princes were executed. Sixteen of them were executed due to their revolt against the sultan while seven were killed for their revolt attempts and others for reasons of common benefit . Ottoman princes were executed by strangulation, as Turkic-Mongolian traditions prohibited shedding the blood of dynastic members. Compared to European dynasties, executing princes prevented the formation of an aristocracy that developed in parallel with the dynasty.
Ascending to the throne in 1603, Sultan Ahmed I did not kill his brothers, including Shahzade Mustafa – an indication of his tolerant character. Ahmed I was also a dervish and did not have a child when he became sultan. His behaviour might be related to the public indignation that emerged after his father, Sultan Mehmed III, executed his 19 brothers following his accession to the throne. When Ahmed I died in 1617, his brother ascended the throne even though he had sons. It was the first time that a sultan's brother became emperor after the sultan's death. Until that time, the sultan was invariably followed by his son. After this, princes were not sent to sanjaks as governors, but rather waited their turn to become sultan at the palace. The execution of princes was also abolished. French writer Alphonse de Lamartine once said: "After Sultan Ahmed I, a brother's succession to the throne showed that the Genghis Khan laws, which say political sovereignty jointly belongs to the dynasty, were still alive in the Ottoman Empire." This practice increased the credit of Sultan Ahmed I and successive sultans yet brought the empire to grief. Although seniority succession to the throne avoided fratricide to a certain extent, it had different handicaps:
1. As the throne was handed down from father to son in the first stage, the average duration of a sultan's rule was longer and political sustainability was much stronger. Because the oldest dynasty members ascended the throne in later periods, reigns were shorter and the sultans were unable to show the required dynamism as emperor.
2. Previously, princes were assigned as sanjak governors to better train for political and administrative skills. When this practice was discontinued they had less chance to gain experience at the imperial palace.
3. At first, sanjak governor princes were the only alternative authority after the imperial palace. When they began to stay in the palace, other authorities outside the dynasty, including viziers, the ulema, soldiers and even public figures, gained more power. Having lived in the Ottoman Empire from 1634 to 1636, English lawyer and traveler Sir Henry Blount said the following after janissaries created trouble for the sultan: "The reason for this is Sultan Ahmed I, who spared the life of his brother after his enthronement and allowed him to claim a right to the throne. This practice gave impertinent soldiers the chance to taste the Bloud Royall that can never regain its lost dignity.
The Ottoman constitution of 1876 recognized the succession of the oldest dynasty member to the throne. Although Ottoman sultans in the last century of the empire attempted to institute the old inheritance system to enthrone young and dynamic princes as seen in European dynasties, they failed. It is wrong to evaluate incidents without considering their place and actors without the specific conditions of the period. Therefore, it is a simple issue to describe fratricide in Ottoman ideology as an atrocity, or brutality or egoism at the least. Fratricide is incomprehensible both emotionally and conscientiously, but was one of the elements that kept the Ottoman Empire alive for centuries.