By Elmira Akhmetova

In the summer of 1553, Suleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566) left the Osmanli (Ottoman) capital, Istanbul with the army for his third campaign in the east against the Safavids, who began emerging as a main political opponent for the Osmanlis in the region. Before his departure, the sultan had dispatched an order to the governor of Amasya, Şehzade (Prince) Mustafa (1515–1553), to prepare his forces to join this campaign.  On his road to Ereğli, Suleyman sent another messenger to his son indicating that the latter should join him there, where Suleyman’s forces were scheduled to camp. Despite the warnings from his advisers, Mustafa decided to join his father’s army. Perhaps, it would not have been easy for Mustafa to decide whether to obey his father’s orders, given that the sultan seemed to be accusing him of rebellion and of generating sedition.

What did happen next is narrated by Zahit Atçil accordingly:

On 6 October 1553, the prince arrived at the sultan’s camp in order to kiss his father’s hand; he dismounted his horse in front of the sultan’s tent, leaving his steed with his mirahûr (stable master) and his sword with the sultan’s guards. When he entered the fourth section of the imperial tent, he saw his father seated there with an arrow in his hand. He reverently saluted his father but received a shocking response: “Ah! Dog, do you still dare to salute me?” Then, at the sultan’s order, three mutes caught Mustafa and began to strangle him. He nearly escaped their hands once, but ultimately he was overpowered and executed. His mirahûr and another agha who had been waiting outside were also killed.[1]

This tradition of killing the male heirs in Osmanli history called fratricide, (from the Latin words frater ‘brother’ and cida ‘killer,’ or cidum ‘a killing,’ both from caedere ‘to kill, to cut down’), an act of a person, directly or via use of either a hired or an indoctrinated intermediary (an assassin) that ultimately results in the killing of their brother, or filicide, the killing of one’s child, was widely practiced in the struggle for the throne. It was introduced as a judicial royal policy by Sultan Mehmet II, who is better known as Al-Fatih, the Liberator, who opened Constantinople for Islam in 1453. The main justification for killing of, in most of the cases, innocent brothers was the preservation of public order and the prevention of potential succession wars in future. This short essay is a review of this practice from the Maqāsid al-Sharī’ah perspective.

The Osmanli Succession Practice

The Osmanlis did not have a specific tradition of the power transfer within the court. The kingdom was considered as the common property of the entire dynasty. The Osmanli rule inherited the Selçuk dynasty tradition, who believed in the equal rights of brothers and sons to the throne. The best known Osmanli historian, Halil Inalcik, stated that the sultan commonly chose one of his sons as heir apparent without consideration of his age. To keep remaining brothers and sons loyal to the newly chosen sultan, who exercised authority in the capital city, the other sons would be given the title ‘malik’ and being appointed to govern various provinces of the realm.[2]

This Osmanli practice of open succession, which is often is described as ‘survival of the fittest, not eldest, son,’ resulted many bloodshed and civil wars. At the early age of the political formation of the sultanate, the succeed sultans used to divide the territory of the realm into sanjaks (provinces) and gave them over to the administration of princes in order to prevent civil war. These provinces were autonomous, having its own army, which was loyal first to their provincial ruler than to the sultan. However, this practice weakened the central control of the state and paved the way for its downfall. Upon the death of their father, male siblings usually began to fight against each other until one emerged triumphant. The son of the sultan, who was ruling in a closer province had more chances to became the next sultan as he would hear the news of the death of their father faster than other brothers who ruled in the remote provinces and reach Istanbul first and declare himself the next sultan. Accordingly, favourite sons of the sultan got rights to rule in closer provinces. Later other brothers also reached Istanbul with their armies as fast as possible they can, and the conflict for succession sometimes ended with civil war. For example, when Sultan Bayezid (r. 1389-1402) was defeated at the hands of the Emir Timurlenk near Ankara in 1402 and consequently captured, the Osmanli territory fell into the civil war among the sons of Bayezid for success, which is called the tumult period. Only in 1412, after ten years of fighting, Mehmed I Chelebi succeeded defeating the armies of his other three brothers, Suleyman, Musa and Isa. As the brothers were fighting against each other, many civilians and soldiers lost their lives, and solidarity and the territorial unity also was lost.

Then the ruling family began sacrificing themselves for the state and their people, and drank the bitter poison themselves, as stated Ekrem Bugra Ekinci. This bitter poison was fratricide, the execution of the members of the dynasty for the good of the people, which is known as fratricide. Ekinci argues that the main reason for this practice was to preserve the unity of the state and the livelihood of the people.[3] Mehmet II, the grandson of the Mehmed I Chelebi issued a Law of Fratricide in which he stated that:

“Whichever of my sons inherits the sultanate, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of world order. Most jurists have approved this; let action be taken accordingly.”[4]

Very soon, killing of brothers and even sons via political tricks and deception became a reality in the Osmanli palace. When Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512), the son of Mehmed II died suddenly, his youngest son Selim (r. 1512-1520) was in Istanbul. Selim immediately declared himself the next sultan and invited his two brothers, Ahmed and Korkut with their families to ‘have a dinner together in the palace.’ But when they arrived at the palace, all of them were murdered. People gave a nickname ‘yavuz’ to Selim due to his harshness towards his brothers, Ahmed and Korkut.

The largest killing took place on the succession of Mehmet III (r. 1595-1603) when 19 of his brothers and half-brothers were killed and buried with their father. The excuse for this mass murder was the same – to prevent civil war. Reflecting public disapproval of this violence, his successor Ahmed I (r. 1603-1617) abandoned the practice, and replaced it with the seniority succession and the life imprisonment of the other princes in the Kafes, a section of the Osmanli palace. Sons and brothers of the ruling sultan were locked up in the palace, and they were allowed to have as much as entertainment (women and wine) as they want. They were not permitted to learn administration, or to get political, military or economic experience. This Palace Imprisonment custom continued until the last days of the Sultanate and was one of the reasons for the weaknesses and decline of the ruling class.

Discussion of Fratricide

When sultans had decided to eliminate their brothers, as Muslim rulers, they seek a fatwa from Shaykh al-Islam (Grand Mufti), the highest religious authority in the Sultanate, to justify their intention. The position of Shaykh al-Islam was highly respected, but still, as usual, the sultan was the person who made the final decision. It is also worthy to note here that not all fuqaha’ and religious authorities endorsed this killing of innocent princes. For instance, the Sultan Osman II (r. 1618-1622) wanted to execute his brother when he was going to the Battle of Khotyn to avoid possible disobedience behind. However, his Shaykh al-Islam Es’ad Efendi did not issue a fatwa, and the Sultan took it from the Qadi-Asker (Military Judge) Tashkopruzade. It was very common to see different fatwa interpretations in a case that is not clearly defined in legal references.

In general, fratricide was validated by the Osmanli ‘ulamā to avoid potential harm. They explained that fratricide was applied in accordance with verses of the Qur’an (al-Kahf 18: 80-81), where it is narrated that the companion of the Prophet Musa (AS) killed an innocent child. Moses had asked him: “Have you killed an innocent person who had killed none?” When Moses criticised 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.” But the important issue arises here is that the companion of the Prophet Musa (AS), according to the Qur’an, was a person who had wisdom and hidden knowledge from Allah. With that hidden knowledge, he was certain (yaqin) about the future of that child. But in the case of Osmanli Sultans, although many of them practiced Sufism, it is difficult to claim that they had that certain hidden knowledge from Allah about what will happen in future.

Another dalil from the Qur’an which was applied as a verification of fratricide is from the chapter of al-Baqarah, ayah number 191, which says that: “And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah is worse than killing.” Accordingly, the Quran in this ayah specifies that fitnah (rebellion, social disturbance) is worse than killing a person; therefore, killing of few brothers, which could be understood from this particular ayah as a lesser harm, who may make fitnah in future is better than having social disturbance in future which may cost thousands of lives.

On this line, Syrian Hanbali scholar Karmi (d. 1624), said that the execution of princes was a virtue (!) of the Osmanli 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 recognise this decision, he found great benefit in it and believed that he preferred to give the fatwah of the execution of three people in order to protect another thirty. Karmi’s words illustrate the principle of choosing the more moderate path between two harmful ones, as Ekrem Burga stated. Karmi narrates the collapse of the Moroccan sultanate due to the lack of fratricide in the sultanate.[5]

This justification can be refuted for two reasons. Firstly, yes, the main objective of the Sharī’ah is to promote good and to prevent evil. But this noble end, which is attaining social order, should not be achieved by wrong means or killing of princes. The end does not justify the means, but both, the end and means should be permitted and legal.[6]

Secondly, not all princes wanted to fight for the throne. The execution of these princes who did not attempt to incite any riots was the legal abuse and against the Sharī’ah. In the Qur’an it is stated that, “Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind” (Al-Ma’idah 5:32). The punishment of an innocent person with the worry of a possible crime in the future is against the law in accordance with the principle of ‘a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty according to the law.’ Again, capital punishment cannot be never justified in Islam as a prevention of potential harm.

Some scholars, who support the idea that fratricide was the best for the Osmanli succession, also bring the verse from The Gospel of John (18:14) which says: “… it is better for you that one man dies for the people than that the whole nation perish.”[7] But killing of brothers was capital punishment and, according to Islamic jurisprudence, death penalty cannot be validated expect dalil qat’i, the strong evidence; and, since the Bible and Torah were corrupted throughout centuries, their verses cannot be considered as the strong evidence to justify capital punishment.

Modern scholars, who consider the execution of princes justifiable also base their approach on the maslahah (the interests of the public) principle of the Islamic law. Ekrem Burga defines maslahah as placing the public’s interest before personal interest in regards to deciding an issue.[8] Interestingly, maslahah by the fuqahā’ is defined as a prohibition or allow of something on the basis of whether or not it serves the common good or public welfare.[9] This concept is accordingly related to that of istislah or “to seek the best public interest” which is considered the objective and purpose of the Sharī’ah.[10] Maslahah is considered as a secondary source of the Islamic jurisprudence and its validation for criminal law is weak.

Fratricide from a Maqāsid Al-Sharī’ah Perspective

Jasser Auda defines Maqāsid al-Sharī’ah as the objectives/purposes behind Islamic rulings; it is an alternative expression to ‘people’s interests’ (masalih).[11] Definition by Ibn Ashur focuses on the overall objective (Maqsad ‘Amm) of the Sharī’ah as he says, “It consists of the preserving the social order of the community (ummah) and insuring its healthy progress by promoting the well-being and righteousness of that which prevails in it, namely the human species. The well-being and virtue of human beings consist of the soundness of their intellect, the righteousness of their deeds as well as the goodness of the things of the world where they live that are put at their disposal.”[12]

Accordingly, Maqāsid al-Sharī’ah includes all fields dealing with human beings, environment, animals, economic or political activities; all has its own specific objectives, but all are for promoting healthy progress of the society. So, can we justify fratricide as it looks as a way to provide well-being and stability of society? From my understanding of Maqāsid Al-Sharī’ah, never. As history proves, fratricide never provided well-being of society, but the Osmanli history was full of political intrigues, revels and treachery.

In fact, Maqāsid Al-Sharī’ah includes both: material and spiritual progress; and progress in this world and hereafter. It is concerned with salvation of all individuals and entire community. It includes all material and spiritual, emotional and physical aspects for all individuals without any exception and entire community. It also includes humans and animals, environment in a holistic view. Therefore, from my understanding, any innocent person cannot be sacrificed for the benefit of other people as all are considered equal in front of Allah SWT.

The Objectives of Sharī’ah is to bring salvation and well-being to all members of society.

In addition, protection of human life (hifz nafs) is considered one of the five essential Maqāsid. The life of every human being is sacred in Islam. Every person, regardless of his social background or ethnicity, is entitled to be protected by the government. But as we can see from the Osmanli tradition of succession, many princes were killed by the government (!) due to their nobility and elite origin. So, the Osmanli tradition of fratricide cannot be considered a virtue, because wrong-doing can be never called a virtue.

In conclusion, fratricide is incomprehensible both emotionally and conscientiously. Many argue that it was one of the elements that kept the Osmanli Sultanate alive for centuries. But still, although it was a workable tool to keep the territory united and relatively stable, it cannot be considered Islamic, permitted and the right way of succession. Rather, the Osmanli ruling elite adopted it from their earlier tradition and just tried to achieve its permission in Islam by the Qur’anic verses and maslahah concept. Yet, killing of non-guilty person never can be justified in Islam regardless of his social class, ethnicity and religion. Life of all humans is sacred and no one can be sacrificed for the benefit of others.



Notes from CENT 6060 class, sem 3, 2016/17, International Islamic University, Postgraduate Diploma in Integrated Knowledge Programme. Lecturer: Assoc. Prof. Mohamed El-Tahir El-Mesawi.
Atçil, Zahit. (2016). “Why Did Süleyman the Magnificent Execute His Son Şehzade Mustafa in 1553?” Osmanli Araştirmalari /The Journal of Ottoman Studies (XLVIII).
Auda, Jasser. (2010). Maqasid Al-Shari’ah As Philosophy of Islamic Law. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust.
Ekinci, Ekrem Bugra. (2015). “The history of fratricide in the Ottoman Empire.” Daily Sabah–part-1; and–part-2. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
Esposito, John L. (2003). The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ibn Ashur, Muhammad Al-Tahir (2006). Treatise on Maqāsid Al-Sharī’ah. Trans. by Mohamed El-Tahir El-Mesawi. USA: IIIT.
Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. (2012). Maqāsid Al-Sharī’ah, Ijtihād and Civilisational Renewal, Occasional Papers Series 20. London: IIIT.
Sattam, Abdul Aziz (2015). Sharia and the Concept of Benefit: The Use and Function of Maslaha in Islamic Jurisprudence. London: I.B. Tauris.
Shahrin, Noramirah Shahrin. (2016). “The Ottoman Succession and Its Relation to the Turkish Concept of Sovereignty – Halil Inalcik: Article Review.” HistoriaFactory Retrieved 5 September 2016.
[1] Zahit Atçil, “Why Did Süleyman the Magnificent Execute His Son Şehzade Mustafa in 1553?,” Osmanli
 Araştirmalari /The Journal of Ottoman Studies (XLVIII, 2016), 68.
[2] Noramirah Shahrin, “The Ottoman Succession and Its Relation to the Turkish Concept of Sovereignty – Halil Inalcik: Article Review,” HistoriaFactory (accessed 4 September 2016).
[3] Ekrem Bugra Ekinci, “The history of fratricide in the Ottoman Empire,” Daily Sabah–part-1 (accessed 3 September 2016).
[4] Ibid.
[6] From the class notes of CENT 6060, taken in semester 1, 2015/16, at IIUM, from Assoc. Prof. Mohamed El-Tahir El-Mesawi.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Abdul Aziz bin Sattam, Sharia and the Concept of Benefit: The Use and Function of Maslaha in Islamic Jurisprudence, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015).
[10] John L. Esposito, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
[11] Jasser Auda, Maqasid Al-Shari’ah As Philosophy of Islamic Law, (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 2010), 2.
[12] Muhammad Al-Tahir Ibn Ashur, Treatise on Maqāsid Al-Sharī’ah, trans. by Mohamed El-Tahir El-Mesawi, (USA: IIIT, 2006), 91.
Writer is a faculty member at the department of History and Civilization, International Islamic University Malaysia
Report this adPrivacy