Summary and book reviews of God's Shadow by Alan Mikhail

God's Shadow

Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World

by Alan Mikhail

God's Shadow by Alan Mikhail X
God's Shadow by Alan Mikhail
  • Critics' Opinion:

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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Aug 2020, 496 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2021, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rose Rankin
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About this Book

Book Summary

An explosive global history that redefines the historical origins of the modern world through the life of Sultan Selim I and his Ottoman Empire.

Long neglected in world history, the Ottoman Empire was a hub of intellectual fervor, geopolitical power, and enlightened pluralistic rule. At the height of their authority in the sixteenth century, the Ottomans, with extraordinary military dominance and unparalleled monopolies over trade routes, controlled more territory and ruled over more people than any world power, forcing Europeans out of the Mediterranean and to the New World.

Yet, despite its towering influence and centrality to the rise of our modern world, the Ottoman Empire's history has for centuries been distorted, misrepresented, and even suppressed in the West. Now Alan Mikhail presents a vitally needed recasting of Ottoman history, retelling the story of the Ottoman conquest of the world through the dramatic biography of Sultan Selim I (1470–1520).

Born to a concubine, and the fourth of his sultan father's ten sons, Selim was never meant to inherit the throne. With personal charisma and military prowess―as well as the guidance of his remarkably gifted mother, Gülbahar―Selim claimed power over the empire in 1512 and, through ruthless ambition, nearly tripled the territory under Ottoman control, building a governing structure that lasted into the twentieth century. At the same time, Selim―known by his subjects as "God's Shadow on Earth"―fostered religious diversity, welcoming Jews among other minority populations into the empire; encouraged learning and philosophy; and penned his own verse.

Drawing on previously unexamined sources from multiple languages, and with original maps and stunning illustrations, Mikhail's game-changing account "challenges readers to recalibrate their sense of history" (Leslie Peirce), adroitly using Selim's life to upend prevailing shibboleths about Islamic history and jingoistic "rise of the West" theories that have held sway for decades. Whether recasting Christopher Columbus's voyages to the "Americas" as a bumbling attempt to slay Muslims or showing how the Ottomans allowed slaves to become the elite of society while Christian states at the very same time waged the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, God's Shadow radically reshapes our understanding of the importance of Selim's Ottoman Empire in the history of the modern world.

16 pages of color illustrations; 40 black-and-white illustrations

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Mikhail succeeds in capturing the tension and power struggles that marked Selim's accession, but unfortunately misses the opportunity to explain how Orientalism, with its depictions of Muslims and "the East" as inherently illogical, exotic and sinful, was directly related to the existential fears of the Ottomans. Nevertheless, God's Shadow is a refreshing corrective to the literary and historical traditions that portray the Ottomans as weak and inconsequential...continued

Full Review (936 words).

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(Reviewed by Rose Rankin).

Media Reviews

Glamour
If you want a ticket out of 2020, may I recommend this biography of bloodthirsty Ottoman Sultan Selim I (1470–1520)? It not only argues that Columbus's voyage to America happened because Europeans were busy avoiding the Turks, it'll also tell you that the Turks had a thing for moles (in 1470, a Sufi mystic predicted that the next sultan would have seven moles, and indeed Selim was born with seven). There's also fratricide (a rite of passage for sultans-to-be), insane concubine politics, and circumcision festivals, and it sent me down a rabbit hole reading up on sultans.

New York Times
God's Shadow is full of fine details of this cross-cultural encounter, but its most arresting aspect is Mikhail's second claim: that 'the Ottoman Empire made our modern world.' He calls his book 'a revisionist account…demonstrating Islam's constituent role in forming some of the most fundamental aspects of the history of Europe, the Americas and the United States.' From it, he says, 'a bold new world history emerges, one that overturns shibboleths that have held sway for a millennium. Whether politicians, pundits and traditional historians like it or not, the world we inhabit is very much an Ottoman one'...The story is always interesting...The highest praise for a history book is that it makes you think about things in a new way.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In sharply drawn chapters, many of which contain enough ideas for a separate book, Mikhail restores the Ottoman Empire to its rightful place as a 'fulcrum' of global power...A massively ambitious study, largely accessible and percolating with ideas for further study.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[R]evelatory...Written with flair and deep insight, this thought-provoking account is both a major historical work and a genuine page-turner.

Library Journal (starred review)
Global economics and politics are well illuminated, as are the connections and relationships between Eurasia and the Americas. Excellent maps and illustrations throughout detail the cities, societies, and cultural regions in circa 1500. A wonderful, exciting, engaging, scholarly yet accessible work for all readers of world history, a book that addresses a critical but often overlooked axis of global history.

Author Blurb Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
Alan Mikhail is a very original and inventive historian.

Author Blurb Mary Beard, author of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
The Ottoman Empire lurks behind much of the modern world. Alan Mikhail's new book makes a great introduction to one of the key figures in Ottoman history, Sultan Selim I.

Author Blurb Stephen Greenblatt, author of Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics and The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve
The life of the Ottoman sultan Selim I, as told by the gifted historian Alan Mikhail, is an astonishing and thrilling story, worthy of Game of Thrones. Through a tangle of palace intrigue, war, fratricide, and sheer Machiavellian cunning, Selim rose from obscurity to the pinnacle of world power in the sixteenth century. But the scope of Mikhail's history is broader than this remarkable individual life. God's Shadow is a radical revision of the narrative of modern history, a revision that restores the Ottoman empire to the central role it played in provoking Columbus' voyages, in haunting the fears and ambitions of European nation states, and in profoundly influencing the self-understanding of both Catholics and Protestants. Along the way, Mikhail shows that the Muslim culture over which Selim reigned was in many respects far more progressive, tolerant, and cosmopolitan than anything known in the Christian West.

Author Blurb Natalie Zemon Davis, author of Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds
Alan Mikhail's bold study of Sultan Selim, his conquests, and reforms rightfully gives the Ottoman Empire and Islam a central place in early modern history. An important book and a lively read as well.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Royal Succession in the Ottoman Empire

Bust of Hafsa Sultan in Manisa, TurkeyWhen we think about royal succession, we typically think of princes, and European history is rife with dramatic steps that monarchs took to ensure they had a male heir. But this devotion to primogeniture, or the succession of the oldest son, was not universal in the early modern world. So, while Henry VIII was upending his entire kingdom to produce a son, on the other side of Europe the Ottoman Empire had numerous male heirs in nearly every generation, thanks to its custom of concubinage.

With one notable exception, as we will see, Ottoman sultans did not marry; instead they had a harem, consisting of slave women who could become their concubines. Long fetishized in the West, the harem was actually "…by definition a sanctuary or ...

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